Interview: Natalie Prass – ”I like the echo-y sound in the bathroom when I’m alone, that’s when all the ideas come!”
Written by Tommy Juto
As I sit down at the Cirkus in Stockholm with extremely gifted singer/songwriter Natalie Prass it’s clear this is an artist enjoying her career finally taking off, having waited so long to see the release of a richly produced debut album that’s so far had unanimous praise. She made it to Scandinavia, eventually, although Denmark never got to see her as aviation hassle made her miss out on playing Copenhagen the night before coming into Stockholm. Our conversation is running much smoother, though, except for a distracting waiter tip-toeing around us serving tea. This waiter in particular goes by the name of Ryan Adams, whom Prass is supporting on a number of dates in Europe. Adams, who the night before stood in for his ill-travelling touring mate wearing a black and white dress playing her songs as “Natalie SAS”, is ever the gentleman, politely offering both of us something that looks like lemon tea. Trying to stay focused on asking questions and voice-recording I decline, but Prass gets a cup so hot she needs to cool it with some plain water. Seems fitting for a cool musician with a hot career.
So, you missed the show last night in Copenhagen due to problems with your flight. What happened?
They had a problem in their computer system, they couldn’t see that they’d charged us for all five tickets. We had the reservations, we had the confirmation e-mail, but we didn’t have the card it was booked on, ‘cause my business manager booked it. So they wouldn’t let us on the plane, and they couldn’t see the card in their system. But they actually charged us three times for the tickets, and I still haven’t gotten the money back.
So I missed the show last night, which is something I never do. Especially when it’s not our fault, we were there on time and everything but they wouldn’t let us on the flight. It was really frustrating, being at the airport literally all day. Then we went to London to spend the night there and left early this morning to come here.
But Ryan went to Copenhagen and he made sure “you” were there anyway.
Yeah, it was a happy ending, ‘cause Ryan dressed up like me! It’s amazing what he did, I always wear a black and white dress, so he found a black and white dress and went out there and played my songs as “Natalie SAS”. He’s a lot of fun, I feel like it’s a perfect tour, we’re both a lot of fun.
Not that you’re old, but you’ve been doing this for some years. Releasing your first album at 28, how is that different compared to if you would have been younger?
Well, I recorded the record when I was 25 and I’d had two EP:s out before that, I was definitely not expecting it to take this long. But I’m kind of glad that it took this long, I mean I’m trying to find the positive in it after the agony of all these years with it being on hold. I recorded two more records during that time, but I knew so hard that this had to be the first one. It didn’t make sense to me to release something newer while knowing this was so special. I definitely learned a lot about myself and went into this really dark period for about a year, questioning whether I wanted to keep playing music.
The record was finished as I was turning 26, and I was kinda naïve thinking “it will come out in the summertime”, but I’d never thought it would be three years. All the guys involved, we started to evolve a friendship but then I realized it wasn’t much I could do, and we have a really special musical relationship. So I figured I just had to trust them, they know what’s best, Spacebomb is getting bigger and more resources. I was playing more with other people, getting new experiences and thinking it’ll work out. But then in January right before the album release was really happening all the fear came back, thinking the record was old and so on.
Why did it take so long?
Because Spacebomb was growing and going through a lot of internal changes with how the label would be run. Spacebomb was literally an idea when I started working, it wasn’t a label yet. I just wanted to work with these guys, it made sense and was so exciting. So it kind of reminded me of the Stax thing, but more recently of how Jack White moving to Nashville did amazing things, just really nurturing the underground scene there. Because I moved to Nashville before Jack got there and as soon as he moved there and started doing his thing it all started blossoming.
So it’s kind of like that, not really, but it felt cool doing this with supportive friends that I grew up with. Even if I was in Music City it felt natural and meaningful to go home to Richmond.
I know you and Matthew E. White have known eachother long, but was it the same with Trey Pollard?
No. I knew of Trey, of course, he was known as the music guru, the crazy jazz guitar player and we both went to this Magnet school. So I knew who he was, but he graduated before I got into high school. So that was pretty cool.
And Trey is with you on tour as well. It must feel good and secure to have ones you know well?
Yeah. I’m so honoured! I’m a person who likes having the people I trust and love around me all the time. It’s important to me to stick with the same people.
The sound on the record, have you always had that or is it something that has developed over the years?
I have always tried to write in a more standard, classic kind of way but I’ve never been able to record an album that way because I didn’t have the skills to do string arrangements like Trey does or horns like Matt. I wouldn’t have been able to do that on my own.
Apart from the country-soul influences, I hear Disney films, Cole Porter and classic songwriting like you mentioned, especially in a song like “It Is You”. Has that been a major influence?
I think that type of music is just kind of ingrained in you. I love big band sets, the forties, the fifties. All the American songbook stuff. I was listening to a lot of that kind of music when I wrote that song. So I wrote a ton of songs in that style, jazz songs, standards, and that was one of them.
You have had a lot of praise for the album so far. How do you deal with that?
It’s nice, of course, but I’m also a realist. I’m flattered and excited that people are receiving it so well. I honestly had no idea, I was pretty disconnected from the record ‘cause it’s been so long since we did it. All I wanted was the record to have a chance and put it out there. People might hate it, but I have no idea. I was definitely waiting for “It Is You” to baffle people, to be the throwaway track or something, and funny enough it’s now the song of the month or something on BBC 2 who are playing it every single day! Amazing.
To me it’s very healthy that a song like this can get the spotlight, it gives you hope for music.
Yeah, it’s a really good sign.
Your song “Violently” is arguably one of the best songs so far this year. Could you tell us the story behind it?
I wrote that song so fast. That’s the only song I wrote by myself in class, I was at college at the time and I wrote the lyrics and the melody in my head. So I had to take a bathroom break and sneak off down the hallway! For some reason I like the echo-y sound in the bathroom when I’m alone, that’s when all the ideas come! Kind of weird, ha ha! Basically it’s about longing and wanting somebody but you can’t have them, you’re tired of pretending that you’re just a friend. There’s just all these reasons why you can’t be with that person.
The recording was moving, quite a heavy one.
The strings are very dramatic in it.
Yes, Trey knocked that out of the park… We referenced Gal Costa and her version of “Baby”, the[Caetano Veloso] song on her 1969 self titled album. The songs sound nothing like eachother, but the only thing we wanted to capture was the swelling, the building of that song and how the strings kept getting bigger and bigger with this huge release at the end. We were all obsessed with that album.
Are you the one playing the piano?
No, actually it’s Daniel Clarke who’s in Ryan’s band. What’s pretty weird with Daniel and me is I didn’t think I knew him when he came in to play on the record. Then I started playing in Jenny Lewis’ band and Ryan and Jenny did a tour together when I found that Daniel was there, he who played on my record. Then it turned into me telling my sister about him and how crazy it was that he was in Ryan’s band, and she said “Daniel Clarke? I know him, I had a huge crush on him when he was at your thirteenth birthday party!”, I was like “What??”!!! So I have pictures of me, him and my sister from when I was thirteen in my old photo albums! And now we’re sitting here together in Stockholm! Really freaky.
Given the main theme of the album, I have to ask: have you ever been happily in love…?
Ha ha, I do have faith that one day it will all work out!
One topic that’s been up for debate lately is misogyny. Have you ever encountered this?
Yeah, I don’t know how it is now, but I think every young girl has dealt with that. It’s pretty safe to say. It’s just unfortunately so that it’s the mentality. When I was growing up in Virginia Beach I was literally the only girl that played in bands and played music that wasn’t in an orchestra. I did my own thing and I was just in a big guy club in the middle of all that growing up and feeling very awkward, not knowing who you are. So I definitely got pushed aside, but then you just have to find your people.
I think a lot of girls and girl musicians, not all of course, have to compensate with being more masculine or something to show how they’re tough, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ve always avoided that type of persons and just been in my own little world. Never really cared about what anyone thought about me and I’ve shielded myself from a lot of stuff, subconsciously and consciously, and this record shows that I’m not afraid to be feminine. It’s a pretty unashamed, emotional, feminine record and I think the female spirit is what really makes it sensitive and beautiful. So I’m not afraid to show that.
Did you ever had to stand up for yourself?
I feel like there was a time when I was in a band when I had to buck up a little. But I feel that it might be changing these days.
During the recording of your album, was it comforting knowing Matthew, Trey and the others so well that you could be frank and upright if you needed to when disagreeing over something?
Oh, totally. They’re top notch.
Have you worked with others you didn’t know so well, so that you felt it was difficult for your opinion to come across?
Oh yeah, especially sound guys, ha ha! No, but if I’ve come to a club without my tour manager or my own sound guy I’ve had to stand up a little for myself. But I don’t really have a problem with that.
And we all know what sound guys are like…
Yeah, ha ha! No, even if they are, I just brush it off.